A Fourth of July Commentary

Howard Zinn


this year 2000, I cannot comment more meaningfully on the Fourth of July than

Frederick Douglass did when he was invited in 1852 to give an Independence Day

address. He could not help thinking about the irony of the promise of the

Declaration of Independence, of equality, life, liberty made by slaveowners, and

how slavery was made legitimate in the writing of the Constitution after a

victory for "freedom" over England. And his invitation to speak came

just two years after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, committing the

national government to return fugitives to slavery with all the force of the



it is fitting, at a time when police are exonerated in the killing of unarmed

black men, when the electric chair and the gas chamber are used most often

against people of color, that we refrain from celebration and instead listen to

Douglass’ sobering words:


citizens: Pardon me, and allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here

today? What have I or those I represent to do with your national independence?

Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied

in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called

upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the

benefits, and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your

independence to us?


to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to

him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to

which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration s a sham; your boasted

liberty an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds

of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants,

brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery;

your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious

parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and

hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of

savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking

and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.


and search wherever you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of

the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse and when you

have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of

this nation, and you will say with me that, for revolting barbarity and

shameless hypocrisy, American reigns without a rival…."


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